California Revamps Its Rulebook for Autonomous Cars; Totally Driverless Tests May Start Soon

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California residents could be traveling in fully autonomous cars by the end of the year. And by that we mean people who aren’t just test engineers from the more than two dozen companies currently testing self-driving vehicles in the state, but regular members of the public. These folks could soon get their first experience with a technology that industry leaders have promised will transform the way we move around.

The state’s Department of Motor Vehicles has proposed substantial revisions to existing state regulations. If approved, they would give companies and automakers greater latitude in what technologies they can test on public roads. Among other things, the revisions would permit ride-hailing services to pick up passengers in cars without human drivers on board.
For now, these rides would remain solely in the realm of testing, and companies providing them would be prohibited from charging fees for those services. Nonetheless, the prospect of ride-hailing services like Uber or Lyft picking up riders in autonomous vehicles within a matter of months is the latest sign of just how quickly the autonomous age may be approaching.
Other aspects of the revisions permit the testing of vehicles that operate without traditional controls such as steering wheels and brake pedals. They also create parameters for the eventual deployment and sale of autonomous vehicles.

The revisions are a big step for California in revitalizing its reputation as an autonomous-testing hotbed. Although the state was among the first to establish laws and regulations that address testing—currently, 27 companies are authorized to test on public roads—some manufacturers had complained in recent years that the state’s rules are too restrictive and inhibit innovation.

“We’ve gotten a lot of comments from different manufacturers, and this version of the regulations has really taken those comments to heart,” said Bernard Soriano, deputy director of the California DMV. “So we hope and anticipate these regulations will be viewed positively by the industry.”

A spokesperson for Waymo, which operates more self-driving cars than any other company in California, declined comment on the proposed revisions on Friday. A spokesperson for Uber, which finally applied for a testing permit last week after a months-long standoff with the California DMV, said the company is “planning to engage with the DMV on this.”

Comment on the pending rules is open for the next 45 days, and the DMV will hold a public hearing in late April. Should no complications arise, the rules could go into effect as early as November. It’s unclear whether tech or car companies would be ready that quickly to launch fully autonomous testing with members of the public. Uber currently runs pilot projects that allow riders to hail self-driving vehicles in Pittsburgh and in Arizona, but those cars have human backup drivers sitting behind the wheel. Without a driver on board, there would still be a failsafe for testing.

“With respect to testing, they’re going to require a remote operator,” Brian Soublet, the DMV’s deputy director and chief counsel, said. “Think more like a dispatcher. That person will still have a requirement to be a licensed driver, but the passengers don’t have to be licensed drivers.”

Another requirement may help to start putting parameters around an aspect of autonomous development that has remained hazy to date: how vehicles and law-enforcement officers should best interact. The proposed rules don’t determine how their meetings should necessarily take place, but the DMV wants to ensure communication between makers of the technology and the police.

“Both highway patrol and local areas need to know how to interact with the vehicles, and we’ve put out what we think are minimum standards,” Soublet said. “They need to understand how to know if the autonomous technology is engaged, how to pull it off the road, and some of the important things [such as] where to find in the vehicle who owns it and who is insuring it.”

Some aspects of California’s existing regulations stay the same. Companies still must file annual disengagement reports that provide information on the number of times their self-driving systems suffer glitches or failures. A ban on the testing of any vehicle with a gross weight of more than 10,001 pounds remains intact.

Not everyone is pleased with the proposed regulations. Consumer Watchdog, a nonprofit that has advocated for stringent testing rules, says the revised regulations weaken safety protection for everyday motorists.
Provisions in early drafts of the revisions had required cars without steering wheels to be tested in the state for at least a year—with at least one disengagement report filed—before the company could deploy such a vehicle. Another would have required companies to receive permission from municipalities before testing within their jurisdictions. Those provisions were dropped.

“The DMV’s current self-driving-car test regulations set a standard for the nation, requiring a test driver behind a steering wheel who could take over and vital public reports about testing activities,” said John Simpson, privacy director at Consumer Watchdog. “The new rules are too industry-friendly and don’t adequately protect consumers.”

But the DMV sees the new rules as helping to maintain transparency and build trust about autonomous vehicles among the public. “You know, a big part of the technology is selling it to the public, and selling it from the standpoint of public acceptance,” Soriano said. “The disengagement reports are valuable, and they’re very helpful from an industry perspective, because the public can see how effective the technology is and develop that trust. I see it as a positive.”

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